U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) spoke about farming's past -- and where it's heading -- with farmers and fairgoers at the State Fair on Thursday.
The Senate Agriculture Committee member said he'll work to help farmers adapt to new technologies and market demands -- and that farmers and the public should talk to each other about those changes, too.
But first, he tried out some old-fashioned farm equipment at the Fair's Pioneer Village -- shucking corn, baling hay and sawing logs with a steam engine.
Modern farm equipment can look a lot different. It even includes drones, like the ones that Adam and Aaron Sheller use on their farm in Noblesville. The brothers' company, Precision Drone, sells unmanned aerial vehicles to survey fields and collect crop data.
"It's like any technology in agriculture -- it's slow to adopt," said Aaron Sheller. "But it's happening."
He spoke to Donnelly, Indiana Farm Bureau president Randy Kron and a group from the Future Farmers of America at the fair.
"When these young people …. start their own operations, you're gonna see this kind of technology come to the forefront," Sheller said. "They're gonna see returns that their parents never saw because they were scared of it to some degree."
Donnelly said he sees these technologies as a way for farmers to be more efficient, increasing yields with less environmental impact.
As for policymakers, he said: "Our job is to stay out of the way and try to be a good partner when you need us."
Donnelly acknowledged that evolving consumer demands can be tough on farmers' profits, especially when big food processors don't cover the cost of the changes.
"But what we can do is continue to promote our farms, our producers, our products," Donnelly said, "to where a Kroger is selling an incredible amount of eggs that's from local farmers, an incredible amount of meat that's from local farmers."
And he said farmers and the food industry need a more open dialogue with consumers.
Though the Farm Bureau's Kron described farmers as "introverts," he agreed they can do more to tell people "their food is safe."
"I think farmers are gonna have to realize our world doesn't end at the farm gate anymore," Kron said. "We have consumers that want to understand what we're doing, and why we're doing, and we're gonna have to answer those questions."
He said he thinks new farm technologies, like drones, are "a great story to tell."
"But it's the unknown that scares them sometimes and concerns 'em," he said of consumers. "So it's gonna be part of our responsibility to make sure we're having those discussions."
For his part, Donnelly voted in favor of a recent compromise bill to label foods made with genetically modified ingredients. More than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.